Fact check: World Bank website does not show COVID-19 testing kits were purchased in 2017 and 2018

Social media users are sharing posts claiming the World Bank’s website shows that COVID-19 testing kits were purchased in 2017 and 2018, implying prior knowledge of the outbreak. This is false: the World Bank explained the products had only been relabelled with COVID-related descriptions in April 2020. Prior to that, the products had been listed since 2017, but not in relation to the pandemic.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

The posts, shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter (  here  ,  here  ,  here  ), say “World Bank website shows COVID-19 testing kits purchased by countries in 2017 and in 2018. I have verified that this is in fact posted on the World Banks World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS) website” or “World Bank exporting COVID-19 Testing Kits in 2018??????”

The text is accompanied by screenshots from the World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS) website, which is a joint initiative by organizations including the World Bank, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to track trade data by product through Harmonized System (HS) codes.

The screenshots show web pages entitled “COVID-19 Test kits (382200) imports by country in 2017” or “COVID-19 Test kits (300215) exports by country in 2018” with a detailed list broken down by country where the product description is “COVID-19 Test kits” and the year is listed as 2018 or 2017.

Archives of these webpages from Sept. 4-6, 2020, show that the WITS website did have “COVID-19” in the product description for three product codes for imports and exports dated to 2017 and 2018. The HS codes 300215 and 382200 were classified as “COVID-19 Test kits” ( see  ,  ,  ,  ) and the product code 902780 was described as “COVID-19 Diagnostic Test instruments and apparatus” ( see  ,  ).

The World Bank told Reuters that these products and product codes predate COVID. They have been used since 2017 - not in relation to COVID-19 but labelled “in much more technical terms that did not mention COVID”.

In April 2020, the products were relabelled amid the pandemic and the WITS updated its product descriptions accordingly, including those attached to the data from 2017 and 2018, even if the products had not been used in relation to COVID-19 at the time.

The World Bank said, “In April, given the newfound importance of these products in diagnosing and treating COVID-19, the WHO and the World Customs issued a list (  here  ,  here  ) of these key products to make it easier to track them—assigning COVID-related descriptions/labels to each of them. For the same reason (to facilitate easier tracking), the WITS team created a special section using this list (as well as the new WHO/WCO labels/descriptions).”

However, as of Sept. 7, 2020, the COVID-related product descriptions no longer appear on the WITS website pages screenshotted in the Facebook posts. The World Bank told Reuters that in light of misinterpretations, they decided to change the labels again “to make it clear that these were products that predated COVID-19.”

As of Sept. 7, on the WITS website 382200 and 382200 now have the product description “Medical Test kits”(  here  , here  ) and 902780 is “Medical Diagnostic Test instruments and apparatus”(here).

To help avoid the misunderstanding, a disclaimer has been added to the WITS site that says: “The data here track previously existing medical devices that are now classified (here) by the World Customs Organization as critical to tackling COVID-19.”


False. The products and product codes shown in the screenshots of the WITS website have been used since 2017 but not in relation to COVID-19. The product descriptions on the website were updated with COVID-related labels in April 2020. Due to misinterpretation, WITS then reverted the product descriptions around Sept. 7, 2020 to clarify the products predated COVID-19.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here  .